Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives, review by Bruce Jacobs
A novel set in a large musty New York City museum with a notable collection of 19th-century American decorative arts might sound like a bad middle school field trip. However, poet Lucy Ives's novel Impossible Views of the World is a savvy, snarky, self-deprecating week in the life of her young Ph.D. narrator Stella Krakus. An assistant curator ("What is for all intents and purposes an entry-level position... until the boomers disperse and perish"), she is in the late stages of an unpleasant divorce and negotiating an on-again, off-again affair with a colleague. Both keep her up at night, but the latter troubles her most. "The problem of being, and/or totally not being, in love with someone you work with is that there is not very much wiggle room in which to figure this irksome dialectic out."
When another curator disappears in the midst of setting up a financially critical exhibit sponsored by a global water conglomerate, Stella's life takes a turn. Asked to pick up the work by her distracted boss, Stella discovers in the curator's desk a cryptic photocopy of an exquisitely detailed map depicting the mysterious township of Elysia. Ives smoothly sidesteps from a story of an over-educated, looking-for-love millennial "reared in the neurotic northern reaches of Manhattan's Upper East Side" to an art history detective mystery. Stella may be an ambivalent romantic partner, but she's a dogged researcher when it comes to deciphering a conundrum.
The charm and energy of Impossible Views of the World rest in Ives's uncanny eye for the subtle tells of romance, the idiosyncrasies of the NYC young, and the details of 19th-century furniture and art. When Stella critically observes early American Dutch knock-off portraits, she comments: "You have centuries of ridiculously, hubristically accomplished painting in the Netherlands, and then you get to ye olde New World, and crap looks like this." Never satisfied with her appearance, Stella abhors her dinner party look of "sloppy neglect or an academically aggressive attempt to be hip that went way, way in the wrong direction." And Ives gets in her licks on Williamsburg, too, with its "design girls in polyester and thin little bandmates whose tattoos appear to outweigh them... languorous Swedes engrossed in life-style banter... designers who were teenagers in 1991 with Swiss-made glasses and three-thousand-dollar attachés." A clever curatorial mystery, a love-gone-wrong rom-com or a sharp-witted story of a young New York woman, Impossible Views of the World is way more fun than a rainy afternoon in the American Objects wing of a cavernous museum.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.